Trump Sued for Foreign Business Profits by Democrats in Congress

By Ben Brody and Toluse Olorunnipa

A group of almost 200 Democratic lawmakers filed a federal lawsuit challenging profits that President Donald Trump’s global businesses have taken in from foreign entities.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and Michigan Representative John Conyers are filing a complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It’s the latest shot at the Trump administration from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who on Tuesday pressed his Attorney General Jeff Sessions for information about his role in the probe into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.

Trump has stepped down from running his $3 billion empire but retained his ownership interests, a decision the lawmakers say in the latest lawsuit violates a clause in the U.S. Constitution that forbids the president from receiving payments or gifts from foreign governments without Congress’s approval.

The Trump International Hotel Washington D.C. has hosted a party for the Kuwaiti embassy. In May, a lobbying firm representing the government of Saudi Arabia disclosed it had paid more than $250,000 in lodging and catering fees to the hotel.

Several critics, including the congressional Democrats in their lawsuit filed Wednesday, contend such dealings violate the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution. The provision forbids U.S. officials from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without consent of Congress.

“Despite this constitutional mandate, Defendant has chosen to accept numerous
benefits from foreign states without first seeking or obtaining congressional approval,” according to the lawsuit. “Indeed, he has taken the position that the Foreign Emoluments Clause does not require him to obtain such approval before accepting benefits arising out of exchanges between foreign states and his businesses.”

A White House official said Trump’s business interests don’t violate the constitutional clause and called the lawsuit politically motivated. The White House will review the complaint, but the official, who asked not to be named, said officials expect the Department of Justice will move to dismiss it.

In a similar lawsuit filed in January by a Washington government-watchdog group, lawyers for the Justice Department said history shows the emoluments clause doesn’t apply to fair-market transactions, including hotel bills, golf club fees and office rents, like those in which Trump is engaged. The government’s response to that lawsuit cited business activity with foreign countries by presidents going back to George Washington.

The congressional Democrats’ suit seeks a court to stop Trump from “accepting emoluments from foreign states without first obtaining the consent of Congress” as well as “further relief as this Court may deem just and proper.”

The Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank and lawfirm “dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of our Constitution’s text and history,” is acting as counsel to the Democrats.

Trump has put his assets in a trust and put his two oldest sons in charge, but he has retained an ownership stake, prompting an outcry from the director of the Office of Government Ethics. Walter Shaub Jr. called the move “meaningless.”

Trump’s family business had said it would donate any profit derived from foreign government sources to the U.S. Treasury, but softened that pledge last month when it said it’ll just estimate the profit its hotels earn from foreign governments.

The company said in a pamphlet shared with members of Congress that its effort might not capture every dollar spent by foreign officials at Trump’s hotels because looking into all patrons’ backgrounds would invade their privacy.

Precedent generally holds that individual legislators can’t sue to enforce a law unless they’ve somehow been deprived of a vote.

The Democrats in the suit — 30 senators and 166 House members — said that the Constitution requires the president to seek Congress’s approval to keep any foreign payments or benefits and that his failure to do so has deprived them of a vote.

The complaint lists examples of several former presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, who took steps to comply with the Emoluments Clause. In the case of Kennedy, he declined to accept the honor of Irish citizenship in 1963 from the government of Ireland, the complaint says.

“Although Defendant Donald J. Trump has accepted the privilege of occupying the highest office in the land, he is not obeying the same rules as the federal officers and employees described above or following the example of compliance set by former presidents,” according to the lawsuit. “He has refused to divest from his businesses and instead continues to accept financial payments and other benefits from foreign states through his many business entities without first obtaining the consent of Congress.”

Attorneys general in Washington D.C. and Maryland filed a lawsuit on Monday over the emoluments clause and focused their complaint on the Trump hotel just blocks from the White House.

The clause also formed the basis of lawsuits from the non-profit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and private competitors with Trump’s businesses.